The Grand Tour, final notes

Milwaukee > NYC > Gent > Brussels > Venice > Rome > Gent > Rouen > Gent > Milwaukee

And these are just the cities I slept in. This is not the way I prefer to take a vacation. In fact, when I got back it was like Aaaah. Peace at last. It was a whirlwind of airports, train stations, taxi stands, tram stops and shifting gears in my not-automatic rental car.

Travel sets my teeth on edge as it is. I had early flights, freakin’ 6 am in Brussels for Venice. Frantic water taxi rides, three-hour train trips hanging out in the toilet, airport transfers in NYC. I do not like to be up all night worrying if I’m going to catch a flight, or trapped on airplanes next to gigantic basketball playerish guys with monstrous knees and feet and hands, or sitting in waiting areas with loud people eating packaged junk food, or waiting for taxis that are late, particularly water taxis that are taking you to catch a train for which you are already late because your landlord did not show with your 300€ security deposit…goddam him to hell. Nor am I crazy about driving in foreign countries with the GPS lady barking directions repeatedly while the GPS contraption itself beeps and buzzes in a series of confusing and alarming ways.

Did I mention pay tolls? In France. It’s bad enough to live in terror that your French credit card (insert tooth sucking noise here) is going to be eaten at any given time by the cold and unfeeling French ATMs, but approaching a peage (toll booth) that is all flashing lights in your rental car, a toll booth with its incomprehensible directional icons, unfamiliar symbols and poorly demarcated lanes is a hellish nightmare. When the promised ticket (which makes the barrier arm go up) did not come out of the little slot and I was hemmed in by a semi, and repeated pressing of the Aide button proved useless, Ashish fled the car. Fortunately the truck driver flagged him down and pointed out that the ticket, in fact, was on the upper dispenser (for semi drivers) 4 feet above me and out of my sight range. Once I opened the door and snatched the ticket I was able to flee the toll booth myself. But left it scarred for life, or at least for the rest of the trip.

Not for the first time, I realized that while the charming cafes with outdoor seating may look inviting, they are generally the purview of the smoker and one is nearly always in the contrail of cigarette smoke. I overheard 2 English people saying that England was going to outlaw smoking in public parks. I’m all for it.

I suppose I could choose to look the other way but the trend of taking selfies is ubiquitous and annoying. It is impossible to look any which-a-way and not see someone taking a self-centered-y, I mean, selfie. More recently the even more annoying selfies-on-a-stick have surfaced. This fun activity involves using your iPhone and a wand so you can record yourself from further distances. Below is a young woman at the next table (magenta rectangle around selfie stick thing) taking an extended selfie. She did this at least 40 times during her meal. She and her sister were engaged in this while their grandfather (I hope) smoked a cigar. This vacation pastime is so popular that there are literally hundreds of street vendors selling the damn things. One has to wonder about people incessantly taking photographs of themselves. How do they manage to enjoy the view when they are aways in the way of whatever they’re supposed to be looking at. Personally, I hate seeing pictures of myself. But that’s just me.

I lit several candles (for private intentions) but I can tell you that I’m hoping for that upgrade to business class comes through next time I fly. The trip back in steerage was a living hell.

Rouen is a glorious city. Normandy in general is beautiful and I loved their galettes. Not so much the cider (fruity, fizzy, sweet) but a beer works.

I hope to go back soon.

Random crap

This is a series of random shots out and about in Ghent.


St. Gas Mask with a vengeance.

I’m usually hostile about 32 o’clock.


Favorite saint, though I think of him as more masculine.

Pretty but not eating this, ever.

Can you say hangover?

I think they left some empty bottles behind. I wonder

if the hats help the hangover. I should get one.

This is an outdoor urinal. There are a number of these in different sorts

of configurations around the city, and, I imagine, in Europe as a whole.

Why do men get these and not women. Not that they’d want to use a 

public toilet. But it just seems unfair.

I’ll have the curried pepperoni, please.

The Gentish skyline

This serene view is obviously marred by the 2 (actually there are 3) hideous high rises. They are being torn down because they ruin the view. The third one, to the left behind the tree, is actually already being torn down. On the one hand, I love that they understand the aesthetics of the situation and are willing to do that. On the other, it’s a huge landfill catastrophe in a city where they do not want you to have much in the way of garbage.

Presumably if they can be thoughtful enough to decide on aesthetics, they’ve already figured out how to do this ecologically. 

I do wonder if all of this has anything to do with the low income status of the residents.

Gent, Ghent, Gand

It is an outrageously beautiful city. I have been to Bruges, a city in Belgium known for its beauty, a mecca for tourists, and it is lovely, but it’s tarted up to attract visitors. Venice is glorious and so are Paris, Florence, Madrid, London, all the, you know, typical hot spots of Europe but none is lovelier than Ghent. Venice, maybe, but Ghent is a real live city with people, an incredible transit system, real shopping (as opposed to touristy trinket shops), and no matter where you look it’s glorious. OK, the weather’s a little psychotic. And that Flemish language, ugh. Everyone speaks English, though, and that’s a help when you are trying to decide if they are speaking to you or clearing their throats. You can just say “English?” And they actually answer you in something comprehensible.

And although these pictures were all taken within a 5 minutes walk from Ashish’s apartment (in various directions) the whole city is beautiful. The first pic is the square just across the street from his apartment. And while there are tourists, there aren’t many. You cannot buy a Ghent t shirt. Much to my annoyance.

Reims to Ghent

There is a kind of comfort being a in country where you can communicate (sorta). So it was with some sadness we left France for the low countries with their gutteral bewrokitijies kruutifructisch. But at least in Belgium the food is good, the people are nice and speak English when pressed. And it was good to get away from the rat hole we were staying in. Good location, treacherous shower, oily headboard and lumpy bed. Ashish’s apartment affords a kind of luxury the hotel room did not, like the ability to move freely rather than shuffle laterally in the 3 inches of space between the walls, windows and beds. 

We planned to break up the drive with a stop in Cateau, the birthplace of Matisse, to have a look at the museum he endowed for the city and to drive on the back roads rather than the highway (do not attempt this without the guidance of the GPS lady). It is really quite lovely and pastoral. In the middle of some lovely small village we passed a woman on a bike running a horse on a tether with a brown sheep chasing them. I’m not sure the scene was pastoral but it was really funny.

I wouldn’t send anyone to the Matisse museum. Unless it was to look for that sheep. But we did stop at L’Abbaye de la Musee or some such place to have lunch. I had a salad that turned out to be mostly charcuterie and Ashish had flammekueche (or however you spell that) and that turned out to be a tortilla with cheddar cheese and an egg. Not that it was without its charms.

The very north of France is quite industrial and the drive from then on was less pastoral than stop-and-go truck following. But that turned out to be a trip to the park, or maybe the zoo, compared to our triumphant return to Ghent. The Belgian law requiring cars to stop for pedestrians has considerably less charm when you are driving. It’s great when you’re walking but behind the wheel of a Ford (?!) negotiating a thousand year old central city with Saturday afternoon traffic that includes, scooters, buses, ginormous tour buses, trams and pedestrians lurching into the street willy nilly, not so much. If you live here and are used to stopping for every feeble-minded goofball that decides to cross the street to get to the hoodlewinkeltijites it is probably fine but I live in a land where the car stops for no man. Though I’d stop for that brown sheep.

Ghent/Gent: the recap

This is an old post that was never published, I am unclear on why.

Gent is really a beautiful city. Although much of it is old, it is also lovely and vibrant, filled with people, lots of fashionable shopping and new construction. Like Hyeres, where I once had an apartment, I do not understand how a small town like this supports such magnificent shopping opportunities when you cannot buy a decent pair of socks in Milwaukee. But that is another matter.

More remarkably, Gent is half the size of Milwaukee and there is no real parking, the streets are filled with pedestrians. And the sidewalks, I might add, are not easy to walk on. They are cobbled with uneven 4 inch square stones. My feet and ankles hurt all the time. Despite all of those issues there are fabulous restaurants and food stores, greengrocers, chocolate shops all over the place.

Some general observations about Gent and maybe Belgium as a whole.

~  You do not automatically get water at restaurants. It is always bottled and you must pay for it.

~  There are no cloth napkins.

~  There are few stop signs and even fewer traffic lights. Traffic is slow and cautious. It is also lots of bikes, scooters, trams and buses. Trams always have the right of way, even before people.

~  Trams run on inverted tracks in the street, that are exactly the width of a bicycle wheel and while I never saw it happen, I am certain that if I rode a bike in Gent it would get stuck in the tram track and fold over. There are a lot of bikes, many with orange seat covers which are rain covers. I have no idea how the bicycle parking system worked. Bicycle parking lots look like piles of scrap metal. See below.

~  Men never wear their shirts untucked and in general everyone, with the possible exception of Ashish, dressed pretty formally. Very few running shoes were sighted.

~ We almost always needed reservations in nice-ish restaurants and the few times we didn’t need them was because we were eating early. By the time we had eaten and were leaving most places they were packed.

~ While smoking is not allowed inside restaurants, outside I was nearly always in the smoke contrail of the person walking in front me.

~ The name Gent (Ghent in English) is derived from the word for glove. In French gant, in Spanish guante. Apparently there was a large glove industry here at one time.